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A name which is open to change; wine.


TEMPRANILLO is Spain's most popular grape for red wine. It's the main ingredient, for example, in red Rioja and pops up all over the country as a major player, albeit under a bewildering number of aliases.

In Ribera del Duero it's Tinto Fino' in Cigales it's Tinto del Pa's' in Toro (rather proprietarily) it's Tinta de Toro' in La Mancha and Valdepeuas it's Cencibel, and in Catalonia it's Ull de Llebre.

True to its name (tempranillo means the little early one), it ripens quickly in the hottest areas of Spain. Harvest in La Mancha may begin as early at the first days of August, but in the cooler northern vineyards in sight of the Pyrenees it's much later.

In Navarra, where some of the finest, most elegant Tempranillo-based wine is made, it can wait until mid-October to ripen fully.

With such differences, it's hardly surprising it is sometimes misunderstood. Different growers in different places describe different characteristics, which can be confusing when one description of it seems to contradict another.

The truth is that it really can change more than just its name from place to place. In Toro, for example, it has developed a form with much thicker skins than is normal in Rioja and Navarra.

It's a kind of natural selection and recent research has shown the DNA of Tinta de Toro is not quite the same even as Tinto Fino, a couple of hours' drive away in Ribera del Duero.

Despite these differences, I was amazed, at a recent tasting of tempranillo organised in London by Wines from Spain, at just how similar its wine can taste and smell. Time and again I found it reminded me of plums and often of chocolate.

When it's aged in American oak barrels for a year or two, it often takes on the flavour of strawberry jam with vanilla, and it's almost always soft and smooth.

My only disappointment as I heroically tasted my way through around 70 deeply impressive wines was that, to my great surprise, a handful of wines from Rioja seemed tart and, in a few cases, sour.

Bear with me being technical for a moment, and I'll try to fill in a bit of background: there are a number of different acids in wine grapes.

Tartaric acid, rare in other fruits, is the most important - it makes the wine refreshing, but malic acid - the kind of acid found in crisp apples - can set the teeth on edge. In dry white wines, a bit of malic acidity is no bad thing, but too much of it in red wines is horrid.

Wine makers almost always remove it through a harmless, natural, biochemical process in which it's changed to creamy lactic acid - as found in yoghurt.

Tempranillo, low in acid overall, has, nevertheless, an unusually high level of malic acid. I wonder if, with the hotter summers we've faced recently, a few Rioja producers have been tempted to hang onto that malic acidity? If they have, I wish they wouldn't.

That aside - and it really only affects a small number of wines - the great news for the impoverished post-festivities wine lover is that some of the less expensive tempranillos are amazingly good.

Those easily available include Riscal Tempranillo 2004 (pounds 5.99 at Majestic) - a big red wine with soft, ripe almost raisiny fruit' Durius Tempranillo 2003 (pounds 6.99 at Morrisons), which is oakier and spicy, but with plenty of soft spicy fruit' Fortius Tempranillo, DO Navarra 2001 (pounds 6.49 from ), quite a bargain for a mature wine with an almost herby touch and a genuinely refreshing acid balance' Berberana Dragon Tempranillo, Reservas Privadas 2003 (pounds 5.99 at Morrisons) which is quite oaky and chunky' Palacio del Conde Gran Reserva, DO Valencia, 2000 (pounds 5.79 from, which is ripe and full-bodied and, perhaps best of the bunch, Castillo La Paz, DO La Mancha, 2004 (pounds 4.99 at Sainsbury's), which is deep, chunky, plummy and satisfying.

If you want to try some less familiar tempranillos available locally, by far the best source is or you can visit its warehouse on Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons at Earl's Court, Low Prudhoe Industrial Estate.

Oliver Ojikutu has chosen his whole range with flair and care.


Altos de Tamaron, Ribera del Duero, 2005 pounds 5.99 Tesco (pounds 6.99 Thresher or pounds 4.66 if you buy three).

Fruity, chunky, young red with a plum and black cherry smell and taste and just enough tannin for a bit of bite. Super with roast lamb and most cheese dishes.


CHANGE OF TEMPRANILLO: Tempranillo vines at Bodega Montreaga (La Mancha). The grape varies widely from place to place.' POPULAR: Young tempranillo vines in Ribera del Duero: different from those just two hours away.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 5, 2007
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